Three years since he was unexpectedly catapulted to the top job in Himachal Pradesh, chief minister Jai Ram Thakur, 55, is firmly in the saddle politically. But he faces the uphill task of keeping a bevy of poll promises, made tougher by an unrelenting Covid-19 rampage that has battered the state’s economy, already weighed down by a surging debt burden of ₹55,000 crore. With his understated, hands-on style of governance, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader from Mandi, who enters his fourth year at the helm on December 27, has been quick to reset his priorities to blunt the opposition’s charge of below-par performance. In an exclusive interview with Ramesh Vinayak in Shimla on Sunday, Thakur exuded an air of quiet confidence in his ability to deal with the challenges ahead. Edited excerpts:

How do you look at three years of your government?

Overall, it has been a satisfactory performance. The last one year, since March, has been disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic which adversely impacted the state financially and also certain big projects. But we didn’t let the health emergency delay or derail initiatives that we had taken at the outset of our term… There is not a single major issue that people hold against my government.

Which are those initiatives?

Since its inception, Himachal Pradesh has seen two parties’ rule by rotation. Every five years, the new government used to begin its term with a spirit of revenge against the last regime… I put an end to the politics of vendetta… We also launched the Jan Manch scheme in which all ministers, along with officials, hear public grievances at a pre-decided venue on the first Thursday of every month…

On the social welfare front, our government reduced the limit for old-age pension from 80 to 70 years and expanded the ambit of the Narendra Modi government’s Ayushman Bharat scheme that benefited 22 lakh of the state’s 70 lakh population. For those left out, we introduced the Him Care scheme for free treatment. Similarly, as a state version of the Centre’s Ujjwala scheme that covered 1.5 lakh families, was implemented Grahini Suvidha, covering another 2.86 lakh beneficiaries. Today, Himachal Pradesh is the only the state where each household has a cooking gas facility.

How is it that Covid-19 continues to surge in Himachal, while it is on the decline in other states?

The spike in two months has coincided with the onset of winter and the wedding season… There was casualness in adhering to the government- imposed caps on the number of attendees. So, we had to reimpose restrictions and tighten enforcement. The limit for social gatherings has been restricted to 50. Night curfew is in place in the four worst-hit districts of Shimla, Kullu, Kangra and Mandi. As a result, the number of daily cases has dropped from 800 to 300. With 9,000 tests daily, our testing is much higher than others… the caseload has shown a sharp decline from 1,000 to 300 in the past week. We will review the night curfew on December 23.

What has been the impact of the Covid crisis on the state’s economy?

We have suffered an economic loss of at least ₹30,000 crore. The hardest hit is tourism that has been a big generator of employment and revenue. Industrial, agriculture and horticulture sectors were less impacted. Drug manufacturing at Baddi, one of Asia’s major pharma hubs, went on even during the lockdown.

What is your wish list for the Centre?

We are pressing for external-aided projects. A ₹1,892-crore tourism infrastructure project funded by the Asian Development Bank is at an advanced stage, but it has been on hold. There has also been a pause on the centrally-funded national highway projects. We are expecting the Finance Commission’s nod on state-specific projects.

Your government faced flak over a health department scam in the purchase of Covid supplies that led to the resignation of the state BJP chief. Has that not hurt the government’s image?

More than the government, it was an individual case. Soon after the scam surfaced, the government acted swiftly and arrested the health director, that too amid the pandemic. State party president Dr Rajeev Bindal resigned on moral grounds. Had he not done that…That would have hurt us more.

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